The Problematic Cultural Appropriation of Polynesian Tattooing in the Wave of 21st Century Tattoo Revival

The practice of tattooing has existed for centuries and is certainly not limited to Polynesia and Micronesia, seeing as ancient remains have been recovered in Europe bearing ink inscribed into the skin (Friedman Herlihy), but our modern, European understanding of tattooing originates from Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific islands. Prior to these voyages, and the subsequent disappearance of tattooing due the introduction of the missionaries, the act of ta tatau was a vital part of Polynesian culture and society. It tied the tribal people to nature, their individuality, and their spirituality. As a Marshallese saying goes, “everything disappears after death, only the tattoo continues to exist” (Kaeppler 111), showing the utmost importance that tattoos had to islanders. Furthermore, the gift of tattooing was seen as a gift given by the gods, meaning that not anyone could become a tattooer, it was an honor bestowed on few individuals, mostly from a handful of families in the Polynesian islands (Forsyth). When the Western world invaded these Pacific islands in the late 17th century and throughout the 18th century, the practice of tattooing changed drastically. Firstly, it was prohibited under missionary control, as the Christian missionaries saw the act as a sinful glorification of the body (Robinson). Secondly, it was exported to Europe by sailors and the so-called “beachcombers” who attempted to assimilate into native cultures. Upon arrival in the Western world, it was exoticized through performers like “the Great Omi”, a character based on the first Tahitian to return to Europe with Captain Cook, and headhunters who collected Māori heads who had been tattooed with the traditional moko face tattoo (Cummings).

“We have suffered for too long as non-Māori have exploited our culture for their own ends, and in so doing debased the intrinsic value of being Ngati Porou, Aitanga a Hauiti, Ngati Ira and so on” (Gorre 28)

Boye Nicholas

As the antiquated age of colonialism seemingly subsides, traditional cultural practices that had been lost in places like French Polynesia are being revived, one of these being ta tatau. Years of oppression have created strong resentment in Polynesia, and the modern tattoo revival is a strong cry for independence and unity in traditional culture and heritage. As Rai Mai says, “Every Polynesian wanted, stamped into the skin, a sign of cultural belonging” (Mai 183). So it is evident that tattooing holds much more meaning to native Polynesians than the simply aesthetic value. For some, like famous Cook Island ta tatau artist Mike Tavioni, the tattoo revival means regaining a sense of identity through the rich cultural heritage that has existed for hundreds of years in Polynesia (Utanga, Mangos 323). For others, like Tetini Pekepo, Boye Nicholas and Rai Mai, the resurgence is much more personal, representing a need to relearn a lost “language” that connected all of the Pacific islands. To most native islanders, the adaptation of traditional tattooing by, non-native, outsiders is seen as disrespectful and inappropriate (Gorre).  Although so much of the history of traditional tattooing practices was lost during the colonial era, it is understood that ta tatau is a tapu, a sacred art form (Allen), one which should be practiced with utmost care by those whom it originates from.

“In nationalistic movements, tradition becomes a rallying cry and a political symbol. Cultural revivalists look for an authentic heritage as a basis for ethnic distinctions; as they rediscover a culture, they also create it.” (Linnekin)

The issue of cultural appropriation is an expansive one, originating in four different places: the power struggle that colonialism created between the Polynesian islands and the Western world, consumer ignorance in the West, the Western “tattoo renaissance”, and the concept of primitivism. Not only did the colonial era introduce the Christian missionaries into the Polynesian islands, thus eradicating the practice of ta tatau until just recently, but it also created a dependent relationship between the colonized islands and Western countries. For most of the colonial islands, like Tahiti and the Cook Islands, this dependence means that tourism is their primary source of revenue. It is through this that elements of traditional culture have been commodified (Robinson 98). Tattoos were essentially transformed into tourist souvenirs, stripping them of their cultural value and turning them into exotic products to be bought and sold by foreigners seeking to expand their world view. Furthermore, tattoos have been fetishized in the Western world, products that tourists seek from distant places inhabited by exotic cultures. This idea of the “exotic other” is inherently problematic in that it reflects outdated colonial understandings of the Pacific islands. A concept known as “neo-Primitivism” has heightened this issue parallel to the Western tattoo renaissance. As the consumer base turned from poor, marginalized communities to middle-class individuals who sought out a new art form for self expression, imagery transformed and expanded. In seeking to be more worldly, the, mostly American, public stole an art form native to Polynesia and appropriated it for their own use. There are those who argue that this is just borrowing, an act that is purely innocent and well intentioned, but what makes it appropriative and harmful is that there is an evident power difference between the Western consumer base and the culture from which they are “borrowing” designs and motifs. Not only does this rewrite the history of tattooing in Western culture, but it attempts to “symbolically undo the conquest of the primitive world” (Schildkrout 338) by refusing to understand or appreciate the deep cultural value of ta tatau.

Jude Hoani by Stephen Langdon

The Polynesian tattoo revival is truly a remarkable event, but the beauty in it lies in the Polynesian people’s thirst for the resuscitation of their cultural heritage, one that has been buried underneath years of colonial rule and oppression. The question of ownership is one that is hard to answer, being that there even discrepancies within native communities of Polynesia (Forsyth), but it is not the Western world’s question to answer. For a culture’s traditions to be exoticized and fetishized is almost forgivable in the archaic context of the Captain Cook era, but it is utterly unacceptable in the twenty-first century. It should be the goal of every global citizen to gain a deeper understanding of cultures that seem “exotic,” but it is ultimately up to those cultures to decide whether or not outsiders are allowed to partake in such sacred traditions as ta tatau

E isia le ‘ula, isia le fau,
‘A e le isia siau tatau,
O’ siau ‘ula tutumau,
E te alu ma ‘oe i le tu’ugamau.

The necklace breaks, the cord breaks,
But your tattoo does not break into pieces,
This necklace is forever,
And goes with you to the grave.
~Samoan tattooing chant (Gemori 5)

Works Cited

Allen, Tricia. “Tatau: The Tahitian Revival.” N.p., n.d. Web. 16 Mar. 2017.

Cummings, W. “Orientalism’s Corporeal Dimension: Tattooed Bodies and Eighteenth-Century Oceans.” Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, vol. 4 no. 2, 2003. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/cch.2003.0039

Forsyth, Miranda. “Lifting the Lid on “The Community”: Who Has the Right to Control Access to Traditional Knowledge and Expressions of Culture?” International Journal of Cultural Property 19.1 (2012): 1-31. Print.

Friedman Herlihy, Anna Felicity. “Tattooed Transculturites: Western Expatriates among Amerindian and Pacific Islander Societies, 1500–1900.” Order No. 3517150 The University of Chicago, 2012. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Gemori, Roberto. The Polynesian tattoo handbook. Place of publication not identified: Tattootribes, 2011. Print.

Gorre, Ligeia D. “Expression of Identity: Māori Ta Moko and the Utilization of the Internet.” Order No. 1451065 University of Southern California, 2007. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 3 Apr. 2017.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L.. Oxford History of Art : Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. Oxford, GB: OUP Oxford, 2008. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 20 March 2017.

 Rai A. Mai. “Tattoo.” Manoa, vol. 17, no. 2, 2005, pp. 178–186.,

Robinson, Rachel. “The Commodification of Polynesian Tattooing: Change, Persistence, and Reinvention of a Cultural Tradition.” Order No. 1490524 University of Kansas, 2010. Ann Arbor: ProQuest. Web. 22 Mar. 2017.

Schildkrout, Enid. “Inscribing the Body.” Annual Review of Anthropology, vol. 33, 2004, pp. 319–344.,

Utanga, John and Therese Mangos. “The Lost Connections: Tattoo Revival in the Cook Islands.” Fashion Theory: The Journal of Dress, Body & Culture, vol. 10, no. 3, Sept. 2006, p. 315.

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